Over my career, I have needed to take several team members through a PIP (performance improvement plan). I was also given a PIP during one job.

From both sides of the coin, there are many things that are disliked about it — but the most difficult one is the anxiety that arises from the process. The concern that comes to most people is distracting, and results in them not clearly focusing on the changes that need to be made.

I would like to design & conduct a PIP that does not create such anxiety. I think it would be more humane to give people a process that respects the situation better. I know that some will still not be mature enough to handle this, and will take it poorly — but I think I would prefer that just highlight their lack of ability to learn what is needed.

We want to support our team in exceptional manners. The process of implementing a PIP does not feel like exceptional support.

What strategy, for conducting a PIP, has resulted in the team member not being distracted with stress about their performance gap? Is there an ideal way to interact with team members, that makes 'rolling into' a PIP a more supportive & less 'executionary' matter?

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    What is your actual specific question you want help with? Jan 29, 2017 at 15:09
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    What exactly are these "changes that need to be made"? It is hard to give you any advise on how to structure and sell a PIP when you don't tell us what your actual goals are. Also, context matters as well. In some companies, a PIP means "We have already decided to fire you, now we just need a justification".
    – Philipp
    Jan 29, 2017 at 15:35
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    You would like people to respect a situation, which has "you will be fired if you don't improve" written all over it. A noble thought indeed, but good luck with that.
    – Masked Man
    Jan 29, 2017 at 16:03
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    The problem is that everyone knows that the PIP is simply the first step to termination. It's management circling the wagons against a wrongful termination claim. The reason for wanting to fire someone can actually be performance, but many times it's not. My advice to anyone presented with a PIP is to start looking for a new job ASAP.
    – DLS3141
    Jan 31, 2017 at 14:43
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    @Lilienthal That's contrary to my experience with every employer I've ever had that wanted to push someone out. I've seen far too many good people fall for the PIP as a path to redemption and keeping their job only to be booted out, either because of failing at some unachievable goal in the PIP or something other lame excuse like parking with their wheel over the line into the next spot. My advice that the PIP is a signal to start the job search stands.
    – DLS3141
    Feb 7, 2017 at 18:36

6 Answers 6


It's called "management".

The very first thing you do with an under-performing employee is give short explicit instructions like "always include the cover sheet on the TPS report".

You might have to repeat your instructions several times and you must definitely follow up on them to be sure they were followed every time. With luck, the employee starts doing what you need done.

That's your informal low stress Performance Improvement Plan. It's low stress because you're just doing your job and you're not explicitly mentioning consequences for noncompliance.

If that doesn't work, you need to do something more formal to make them aware that continued employment depends on them making the changes you require. This will cause anxiety no matter what you call the process.

In fact, if you do manage to come up with an emotionally neutral name for the process, be aware that the name will eventually collect a stigma anyway.

  • Saying "things will be bad no matter what" isn't inventive enough to count as an answer. I understand that this might be the answer 'for most managers', but I think that's low-EQ. If what you mean is 'for a good manager, the PIP has already occurred' then I can make sense of a reality where PIPs are just a waste of more time. Jan 30, 2017 at 4:55

I would like to design & conduct a PIP that does not create such anxiety

You can't. It's inherent in the fundamental idea you are trying to do - no matter what you make it like, a PIP is effectively "if you don't get better at your job, you'll get fired."

Now that being said there are ways to mitigate the problems.

First, and most important, is that you should never bring up performance issues for the first time with a formalized PIP. Always work with your employees as much as you can to discuss performance issues before formalizing it with a PIP.

Second, a PIP needs to have clearly achievable performance metrics. A vague, "do better or you're fired" is a lot more stressful than a "do X, Y, and Z or you're fired." Both are stressful, but one is considerably more difficult to achieve.

Third, as HLGEM suggests, keep a track record of people who successfully "pass" a PIP. You obviously cannot give out specifics, but if you can say "I had another person on a PIP last year and they still work here" can help reduce anxiety by showing it is actually possible to "pass" a PIP.

At the end of the day, you are basically saying "unless you improve you get fired" and if that isn't the case, make it clear. Maybe it's "you get transferred" or something. So if you are in a situation where a PIP doesn't mean "improve or fired" make that clear.

  • On your first point: it is the practice I assume, and perform. Nothing I would bring into a PIP hasn't already been asked for many times, in different formats, with support to accomplish it (1:1 training, courses, etc). So, I'll admit that I'm in the camp of "are PIPs even relevant if you manage this way?" Jan 30, 2017 at 4:40
  • Your second point does give me the though to make the X,Y,Z goal part of the bi-monthly 1:1, which includes goal-setting and goal-review. That does make 1:1 meetings eventually become stress-inducing — but only after there are issues. Up to that point, they start and run as friendly supportive times to cheer-on people. I'd like they remain that way even when the performance gap has grown real. Jan 30, 2017 at 4:44
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    It also helps to have a track record of not firing people who did actually improve As a manager you can;t give out the private details on this, but a Statement of "I had another person on a PIP last year and he is still here" coudl reduce anxiety. Anything though that helps indicate you are serious about retaining them if they improve will help.
    – HLGEM
    Jan 30, 2017 at 16:53
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    I feel like this is the best answer. There's no way to prevent the anxiety and fear that a PIP can create, but you can absolutely assure the employee that this is simply a formality you have to take and you really do want them to improve, but their actions to date have unfortunately pushed things this far. The one thing I can say from my own experience is if you agree to anything yourself as part of the PIP (regular assessments, etc), make sure you follow through on your end of things.
    – MattD
    Jan 31, 2017 at 19:05
  • All very good ideas. I would also make a habit of telling job candidates how this process works so there are no surprises.
    – user8365
    Jan 31, 2017 at 20:31

The best thing you can do for your team member is to cast yourself on his side of the problem.

A PIP places an employee in the position of facing articulated requirements for changes in his behavior. The truth is, you are the arbiter of this adversarial proceeding. You will need to do justice to both parties, and you cannot falsify the results.

However, you can take on the additional duty of aiding and encouraging your team member in his efforts to meet the PIP requirements. You, being a good manager, have already determined to do this.

Now, in order to reduce the terror felt by your team member, you must make clear to him the distinction between your two roles (arbiter and advocate). This will be more or less difficult depending on your management style and your existing dynamic. De-emphasize yourself as arbiter, and demonstrate your advocacy for his success.

At the very least, you must convince your team member that you will not advocate against him.

  • In a legal setting, there's a reason the Judge isn't the Prosecutor. In a PIP, they are the same person. Basically, this stacks the cards against the employee, because the employee must change the mind of the manager, and there is ample evidence that attempting to change the mind of a person only serves to reinforce the person's point of view.... So few managers have any training in how to evaluate anything without bias, that at best, they make bad Judges (evaluators of fairness) and only decent Prosecutors (demanders of change).
    – Edwin Buck
    Jan 22 at 16:37

A performance improvement plan is an admission on Management's part that they have failed to communicate with this employee. It should be the absolute last resort after all other attempts to explain to the employee what you need to see from them, and to help them understand the need and deliver it, have been made and have been unsuccessful.

If you aren't about to fire the employee for cause unless they shape up in a hurry, or if you don't believe that the employee can improve with this guidance, a PIP is something of a nuclear flyswatter. Invoking the PIP process for any lesser reason can destroy all trust in the management chain. Simply declining to fight it when some higher-level a'hole tries to hit one of your people with it can also have that effect.

If you must go this route, be absolutely clear about the success criteria the employee will be measured against. These can not include anything that would not be asked of any of their peers. They must be the only tasks they are expected to work on during the PIP period. They must be S.M.A.R.T goals, emphasis on achievable and measurable. You MUST NOT move the goalposts farther out after setting them; if the employee finds a way to meet the goal that you didn't anticipate you must acknowledge that the goal has none the less been met. You must work with the employee to track progress. You must accept that if you set an unreasonable goal, it's on you to fix that.

Doing a PIP defensibly is neither easy nor cheap. It will burn a lot of management time too. You really don't want to go there unless you must.

And above all else, never assign a PIP to someone whom you've just given a high performance rating. That's about as blatant an admission of management incompetence and/or illegal discrimination as one can get. If you really must fire a high performer, admit that this is what you are doing and accept all the social and legal consequences.

Additional comment: unless you are completely incompetent or the employee is completely oblivious, a PIP should never be a surprise. See above re, I don't know, managing first.

(If you can't guide an employee without a PIP, then maybe you should be put on one yourself; you are failing your job as a manager. If that sounds unreasonable, you don't understand what a PIP is and have no business invoking that process )


Been on the receiving end of PIP

I say you try to avoid the “cornered animal” mentality. Maybe give people the option to take a severance and quit now or go through the PIP process and try to keep the job. I expect most people would just take the severance because they’re obviously don’t like the job to be so disengaged. In other words, give people options and an escape plan. That’s the most humane way to go about it.


All of these answers lead me to think that the better strategy to avoid inducing anxiety is to include the "X,Y,Z" performance metrics in the conversational 1:1 meetings.

Ideally, do this as a process of supporting their growth. it just happens to double for PIP-like gatekeeping when the slope is downward.

  1. Keep a log of when the specificity was introduced (needed), and when it was demonstrated. Depending on the environment, this log could be a shared document between the employee and manager.
  2. I would avoid having it shared obviously with HR and other staff. Despite the legal obviousness of it, that 'sausage-making' process unnerves some kinds of people.)
  3. When 3 (?) or more of these 'PIP-events' have occurred, set specifically engage the employee regarding that history.
    • this could be celebratory, if they have succeeded in each of the corrections. Big moral and confidence boost, and reinforces trust between everyone.
    • If they are fails, then it's a more natural segue to re-evaluating the role with the employee. Maybe they aren't too happy either, and the conversation can mutually unfold.
  4. If these continue to occur then it is grounds for termination. The employee has already gone through many X,Y,Z PIP processes, and you've discussed with them that the company needs these practices/behaviors in order to function.

I recognize that, after step 3, encouraging people to consider the career they are most happy with doesn't work in environments with serious security concerns. I think this overall template works regardless, as a classical PIP leaves just as much security concern open (e.g. retaliation for unfair judgement or being forced out).

Since everything called for in a PIP can be done this way, it satisfying HR's legal requirements.

I won't be accepting my own answer, because I think it's more fair to award credit to those that helped shape it.

  • Depending on your organization, sharing details of the PIP with HR may be a required part of their personnel file. Beyond that while all of these are part of doing a legitimate PIP (rather than a unwinnable PIP), even with them the PIP process is seriously anxiety inducing.
    – Myles
    Jan 31, 2017 at 15:35
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    I would add to your first point that you make it crystal clear that the employee's fate hasn't been decided, their employment can be salvaged based on these specific improvements. Properly alleviating the (reasonable) concern that the firing is inevitable is the best thing you can do to reduce anxiety.
    – Myles
    Jan 31, 2017 at 15:38
  • HR would be informed, but not e.g. added as a share on the Google Sheet for 1:1 progress. That kind of share is visible to the employee. Unless they have a regular relationship to the employee (their own meetings) then I find it just distracts people. Jan 31, 2017 at 19:22

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